CAPE CORAL, Fla. — Florida students will not be forced to wear face masks in school this upcoming academic year, Gov. Ron DeSantis firmly announced on Friday.
Doubling down on his staunch position regarding facial coverings for children, the governor said parents -- not school districts -- should have the final say over whether kids do or don't wear masks in school.
"In Florida, there will be no lockdowns. There will be no school closures. There will be no mandates," DeSantis said during a news conference in Cape Coral.
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Calling the "forced masking of school children" a "huge mistake," DeSantis signed an executive order directing the Florida Department of Education and Florida Department Health to issue emergency rules "protecting the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children."
"We think that that's the most fair way to do it," DeSantis said. "I want to empower parents to be able to make the best decisions they can for the well-being of their children."
According to the executive order, if a school district goes against the governor and imposes a mask mandate, the state may withhold funding from that district.
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The governor's firm stance against mask mandates comes at a time of surging COVID-19 cases across the state of Florida, along with many children unable to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
Earlier this week, Broward County Public Schools decided to require all students, staff members, and visitors to wear facial coverings inside schools, regardless of their vaccination status.
Michael Burke, the interim superintendent of the School District of Palm Beach County, suggested on Thursday he's not ruling out a face mask mandate for the 2021/22 academic year, which starts in less than two weeks on Aug. 10.
"At the end of the day, I need to do what's best to protect our students and our staff," Burke said. "School's not that far off. We have a little time here. But it is a situation I'm closely monitoring, and it's one of my top priorities."
Burke added, however, that if the state issues emergency rules to ban mask mandates in schools, he will abide by that direction.
"If the governor passes a law, as a Constitutional officer, I'm not gonna break that law," Burke said. "But right now, it seems like it's left to the discretion of the local school districts."
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Currently, school districts in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Okeechobee counties are all planning full returns to in-classroom instruction with optional masks for students, staff members, and visitors inside school buildings and on district transportation.
DeSantis said the facial covering controversy ties directly into the newly signed HB 241, formally called the "Parents' Bill of Rights," which "prevents any government institution from infringing on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of a child."
According to the executive order issued Friday, any school safety protocols should "not violate parents' right under Florida law to make health care decisions for their minor children" and should "be in accordance with Florida's 'Parents Bill of Rights' and protect parents' right to make decisions regarding masking of their children in relation to COVID-19."
"If a parent really feels that [masks] is something that's important for their kid, we're not stopping that," DeSantis said. "They absolutely have every right to equip their student with whatever types of masks that they want and have them go to school, if they believe that that's a protection that's important for their children. I think that's the fairest way to do it, to let the parents have the decision."
The governor added there's no evidence that mask mandates reduce the rate of COVID-19 transmission among students inside schools, and emphasized that many Florida teachers are now vaccinated against the virus.
Despite that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics both recently recommended that all K-12 students -- inoculated or not -- wear facial coverings in school.
On Thursday, Florida recorded its fourth-highest single-day spike in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began 16 months ago, reporting 17,589 new cases and 56 new deaths.
Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso on Thursday compared the current surge in coronavirus cases to the worst of 2020.
"Our numbers are expected to double every 10 to 14 days at this point. That's how fast this virus is spreading," Alonso said. "Unfortunately, after July we peaked just like we did in 2020."
Alonso said Palm Beach County tallied 864 new COVID-19 cases on July 26 and averaged more than 700 new daily cases last week. The county's daily COVID-19 positivity rate is 15.96%, up from roughly 3% at the beginning of May.
Every county in Florida, with the exception of Glades County, now has a "high" level of community transmission.
The main reasons for the devastating spike include the explosion of the highly contagious Delta variant -- which first emerged in late April and now accounts for 82% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. -- along with low vaccination coverage.
Health officials said 35% of children between the ages of 12 and 19 in Palm Beach County have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, warning that the Delta variant is particularly harmful to younger populations.
"We're seeing a lot more younger people that are getting significantly sick, needing oxygen, needing to be hospitalized," said Dr. Adam Bromberg with Wellington Regional Medical Center.
DeSantis on Friday called the latest surge a "seasonal viral curve" that should start to go down "pretty soon."
"That is not something that you would shut down society for. That's not something you should shut schools down for," DeSantis said. "Floridians have been, are, and will remain free to choose what’s best for themselves and their families and we will protect their right to work. We’ll protect the rights of businesses to operate. And we will protect the right of our kids to attend school in-person."
The Florida Education Association -- the state's largest teachers' union -- disagreed with the governor's decision on Friday, saying locally elected officials should have the final say over health and safety matters in schools.
"Through his words and actions, Gov. DeSantis has made clear he does not respect the freedom of locally elected officials to do what they feel is best for their communities," the FEA said in a written statement. "Gov. DeSantis continues to think that Tallahassee knows best what all Floridians need. We reject that kind of thinking."
AUDIO: @GovRonDeSantis says he'll sign an executive order directing Health and Education depts to issue emergency rules "protecting the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children.”— Forrest Saunders (@FBSaunders) July 30, 2021
“We think that that’s the most fair way to do it,” he said. pic.twitter.com/b7fP7cClUM